Alberta government, chiefs call for extension of well cleanup program

The funds are part of a program that helped cleanup inactive oil and gas sites in Indigenous communities, but has “timed out.”

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The Alberta government and a group of chiefs from Treaty 6, 7 and 8 territories are asking the federal government to continue allowing access to $133.3 million in grants for cleaning up inactive oil and gas sites in Indigenous communities.

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The funds are part of the Site Rehabilitation Program, which started in May 2020 and has “timed out,”
said Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean. Both Jean and Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson say there is more work to be done on the file and the program should be extended. The chiefs say letting these sites lie dormant puts the health of their communities at risk.

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“Let me be clear: A failure to allocate those resources would mean a banding over 2000 sites on First Nations lands and territories,” said Chief Cody Thomas of the Enoch Cree Nation at a Monday press conference on the First Nation. “This is not just an environmental concern, but a moral imperative to uphold our collective responsibility to future generations.”

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The funds are part of the Site Rehabilitation Program, which started in May 2020. The federal government set aside $1 billion for Alberta, with $133.3 million for cleaning inactive oil and gas sites within Indigenous communities. The Alberta government says $137 million has not yet been spent, but the federal government is now asking for the return of all unused funds.

Closure work has already been finished on 1,824 inactive well sites on 5,000 acres of Indigenous land. The funding has gone towards 500 Alberta-based companies and supported 4,135 jobs. Losing this funding would hurt momentum, argues the province.

“Economic reconciliation, or reconcili-action, means empowering Indigenous people to find the opportunities that they’ve been denied for too long,” said Wilson. “The site rehabilitation program is a tried and tested and a true way of achieving that kind of economic reconcili-action.”

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Stephen Buffalo, CEO and president of the Indian Resources Council of Canada, says the chiefs have been unable to meet with cabinet on the issue. He also said the federal government does not have a program similar to Alberta’s orphan well program.

Chief Kelsey Jacko of the Cold Lake First Nation called for a larger role from Indigenous communities with the Alberta Energy Regulator and Indigenous Services Canada.

“It’s detrimental to our communities, our waters, our lands, the livelihood of our people within our communities that these wells are left behind,” said Chief Ivan Sawan of Loon River First Nation. “First Nations are stepping up to the plate and wanting to do clean ups in cooperation with industry, creating jobs within our communities.”

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Jean said most companies have followed through with their environmental and cleanup obligations. However, many of the inactive wells were owned by companies that have gone bankrupt and cannot remediate the wells themselves.

Jean said the federal government had regulatory oversight for companies operating on Indigenous lands. However, he also acknowledged past Alberta government’s had not done enough to enforce water or land reclamation duties on corporations.

“We’ve had great successes on cleaning up wells here in Alberta and abandoned oil assets, and we need the federal government to come to the table and do what they are responsible for,” said Jean. “The truth is they reaped the benefit for many years of huge gas and oil royalties, and didn’t take the responsibility seriously enough on the cleanup.”

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